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Gilded Serpent presents...
Undeniably Authentic

by Sausan

Jodette, a self-made highly spirited woman whose mother was from Palestine and father from the South of Egypt, greeted me warmly, as she usually does, into her sunny Sacramento home. How long had it been, I wondered, since I stood in front of her on my first day of class many years ago in her El Camino Real studio. Was it 35 years, now? How remarkable that we had stayed in touch all of these years! Standing less than five feet tall, Jodette appears larger than her actual stature. She was quick to usher me inside where at the front part of her house, a large room -- once her dance studio -- was now filled with blankets, shoes, clothing and other items.  At the back of her house, a computer is set up along with a sewing area, and living space. Her dog -- a Pug -- and cat were also there to greet me. “Can I make you some Arabic couscous?” “Of course,” I answered. “What about something to drink?” she asked.

My father had been in North Africa during the war, and some LPs he had brought back had intrigued me. These were record albums that depicted exotically dressed women displayed on their front covers. So, by the time I was old enough to take a deeper interest in these photos, I found my subconscious quest would lead me to find out more about the dance these beautiful women were dressed for. – what I was told it was called “Belly dance” back then.

In 1974, after researching the dance for more than two years, I picked up the Yellow Pages and turned to the dance section, and there I saw Jodette’s ad. I didn’t know back then how lucky I was to have happened specifically upon her ad and not some other ad. For all I knew, she was a Belly dancer that matched the ones on my father's LPs; she was Middle Eastern from the Middle East, and if anyone would know how to teach the dance, it would be Jodette.

Jodette sat next to me and, true to her persona, began speaking excitedly and enthusiastically about her life. “I have over 400 students! Twenty-six of them are professional dancers. And, I have fourteen restaurants in my hand.”

I looked at her in awe. Such a triumph and show of success, I thought, for someone who, at a very young age, immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s without any knowledge or command of the English language and without any familiarity of the American culture or way of life.

“Why do students go against their own teacher,” Jodette continued , “and spread ugly rumors?”  I looked at her a shook my head.  It's a lament that I, too, have experienced from time to time as teacher of this dance.

Jodette is somewhat of an enigma to the Western culture. When she was six months old, her father kidnapped her from her mother in Jordan and took her with him to Egypt. She was soon found and returned to her mother, but was kidnapped again by her father when she was seven years old. For the next three years, she lived with the Ghawazi learning their dance and their customs and celebrating life along with them before returning again to her mother. These three years would make such an imprint on Jodette that, when she became of age, she took off for Cairo to make a name for herself as Camillia in the newly established Egyptian film industry.

While in Cairo, she met Badiya Al Masabni, owner of a nightclub, who would later produce such dancers as Taheyia Karioka, Samia Gamal, and Na’eema Akef, and also helped to launch the careers of many now famous Egyptian musicians such as Fareed Al Atrash. While Badiya Al Masabni refused to put Jodette on the dance stage because of her youthful age, she nonetheless welcomed her in her visits to sit next to her for a short while; and later, under her protection, ordered her driver, Mahmoud, to take Jodette home.

But Jodette would hear nothing of walking away from fame and fortune in the film industry. While in Cairo, Jodette went on to appear in over 400 hundred movies as an extra and in over 100 movies with small speaking parts, often with Fareed Al Atrash, Mohamed Abd El Wahab, Katie, Samia and other now famous actors and dancers. Such movies include “Kariat Al Osha” (Village of the Lovers), Benat Fil Patinag (Girls in the Skating Rink), Arba’a Binat fil Ginena el Haywanat (Four Girls in the Zoo), “Fi Sihatak” (To Your Health), “La Anam” (I Don’t Sleep), and “Du el Mazahaa” (Beat the Drum). While in Cairo, when she was not on the set, she would head for the district of Zamalek to find out where the weddings were being held, and then go to the weddings and dance along side Taheyia Karioka and Samia Gamal among others, getting to know them personally at these events. Jodette, at that time, made anywhere from 10 to 30 jinneh for one wedding (approximately $50 to $150).

King Hussein of Jordan;
a personally signed picture of him, by him, to her.

Jodette recalls one time in her life when she was only 16 years old: “I was dancing at the Andalus Cabaret in Iraq. King Faisil was then ruler, and he would go to the nightclub to watch the dancers. King Faisil liked me very much and the owner of the cabaret was very jealous of his attention towards me. She was so jealous that she wanted to kill me! Her big brother secretly approached me one night and told me that I had better get out of the building, or I would die that night.” Jodette left that evening and never returned.

In a prearranged marriage, Jodette was slated to marry the first movie director, Mohamed El Tougi, a man who was also certified by Hollywood, but she ran away from that marriage. “He had a lot of money, but he was old and ugly.” She said chuckling under her breath.

In the late 1950s, Jodette left Cairo and went back to Aman, Jordan, where she was often invited to dance for King Hussein. At that time, she was the only female in the Kingdom of Jordan who sang and danced, and King Hussein enjoyed her performances. With a far away look of nostalgia, Jodette reminisced of her time in Aman and of King Hussein. “His Majesty, King Hussein, would travel to Ramahla to make a speech. I would be escorted by many soldiers to entertain him.  It was very secretive!"

Jodette would often travel to Beirut, Lebanon, (as did many of her dance colleagues) to dance in the nightclubs there. 

While in Beirut, Jodette met the love of her life, then Prince Mubarak of Kuwait.  "I met the prince in a birthday party.

The prince was coming from London, and he had no time to change into his traditional clothes.  I thought he was the driver for another prince who was there.  After I sang and danced, he asked if he could give me a ride to my pension.  I said to him, ‘Maybe you will get in trouble if you give me a ride.’  He knew that I was thinking he was a driver, so he told me, 'No, I will take permission from my master.'  He took me to my pension.  The next night, I was supposed to dance and sing at Tanio's in Beirut in the nightclub.  After I finished my number, the owner of the club asked me to come with him to introduce me to the Prince of Kuwait whose father was the ruler of the country at that time.  I went with him, and when I saw the prince, I was shocked!  The same man that I saw one night before!  He asked me to sit down with him and his guests.  Since that night, we became very good friends.  We both loved each other very much, but because I couldn't marry him, I left the Middle East for America." 

click for larger image

A "love" letter from Prince Mubarak to Jodette. Note: Judith and Jodette are derivatives of the same name.

Jodette retrieved a letter and showed it to me.  It was a letter from the prince.  "He also couldn't marry me.  The tradition was that he had to marry his cousin, but we kept writing till he died.  I kept all of his letters."  Jodette and the prince met twice before his death; once in France and the last time in London, "exactly where we used to meet when we were young."  Jodette gazed at the letter and then placed it back into its envelope.  "That's the only man I ever loved in my life besides my teen love; he died one year before my husband, and I will always think about him as long as I live.  I remember when he saved my life...but this is another story."

In 1959, Jodette became weary of her hectic life. “I was sick of the stress, and I was so much in love with the prince [Prince Mubarak] that I wanted to get away.” Jodette met her husband, Carl Johnson, in Beirut, Lebanon, where they married and moved to the United States.

In 1965, Jodette taught her very first class at the University of Davis. She was called by the University to teach dance and culture to 50 eager students. She later taught at the YWCA and at a location in Sutter Street in San Francisco. “I would take my reel-to-reel tape recorder with me and teach dancing with that thing!”

In 1962, Jodette became the first in the country to teach authentic Belly dance as she had learned it and danced it in her native land. Her first real studio was in her home where she now housed the many blankets and clothing items I had walked past earlier that day. She later moved her studio to a new location on El Camino Real in Sacramento. It was at this location where I first met her.  She eventually closed that studio to opened one at 23rd and K Streets. A location at Arden Way in Sacramento soon found her much success, and the studio on at 23rd and K Street soon moved to 22nd and K Street where she enjoys teaching classes today.

Jodette is also quite the advocate for the homeless! “Whatever made you want to help the homeless?” I asked. Jodette told me her story: “We were diving back home to Sacramento from Hollywood to sell our home.  I had just signed a contract with Essa Mohamed to dance in his nightclub, The Egyptian Garden, located on Sunset Boulevard. On the way to Sacramento, I was involved in a terrible accident. I ended up in the hospital with almost every bone in my body broken.  The doctors did not have much hope for me being able to walk again. Everyday, I would wake up to find myself lying in my bed unable to move. My neighbors would come to help me everyday . I would talk to God and say that if I could walk again, that if I had a piece of bread, I would give half of that piece of bread to someone who needed it.

Jodette serving food to the homeless

“There was one day that my neighbors said they would not be able to come because they had to go to church. So, they invited me to go with them so that I would not have to stay in bed by myself all day long. They got me into a wheelchair and drove me to the church. Of course, I did not know what they were saying as they were all speaking in Spanish.

Then the priest came up to me and started praying. He kept praying and then told me to take his hand. I did not want to. I did not think I could walk, but he kept telling me to take his hand, and so, I did. I put one foot in front and then the other.” Within two years, Jodette was walking and dancing again.

Jodette’s husband died suddenly in the 1989, and for four years she stopped teaching, grieving for the loss of her husband. During this time, she relied heavily on her students to run the studio. She also opened Café Morocco on Alhambra Boulevard, which was the first Arabic restaurant in Sacramento. She has since sold the restaurant, concentrating more on teaching dance.

Jodette’s tireless commitment and devotion to the homeless has not gone unnoticed. True to her promise to her God, she wakes up early in the mornings and drives to Sam’s Club, Lawn and Fishes, Smart & Final, and the Food Bank where she received bags and boxes of donations in the form of clothing, food, blankets and other items which that she stores in the front end of her home in her first dance studio. Then every night, before heading to her dance studio, she drives these items to the over 800 homeless who are camped out beneath bridges or under the overpasses or at the river’s edge and gives these much need items to them. She is known in Sacramento as the Belly Dancer with a Heart of Gold and has been written up in the Sacramento Bee as well the Land Park News. She was recently featured on KCRA television regarding her helping the homeless [see vid clip below].  Every May she holds a benefit for the homeless and gives the proceeds to alleviate their plight.

Jodette is a first for many things:

  • She is the first Middle Easterner to teach authentic Belly dance in the United States.
  • She is the first authentic Belly dancer to dance at the Cal Expo World’s Fair. Although Little Egypt was the first Middle Easterner to dance at the 1893 World's Fair, Jodette was the first Middle Eastern Dancer in the Twentieth Century to dance in the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane Washington for three months.
  • She was the very first to teach at the YWCA and at two colleges,
  • The first to open an authentic Belly dance studio in the United States, and
  • The first to produce an “Arabian Night” show that featured a story about Cleopatra and Mark Anthony in the Sacramento State Fair.
  • She was the first in the U.S. to dance with a shamadan
  • Jodette introduced "Beladi" dance before any other dancer in the United States. 
  • She was the first to put on a Belly dance festival in Sacramento in 1973.
Jodette was recently featured on KCRA television regarding her helping the homeless

Both of these dances, shamadan and Beladi, she did at the Casbah, then located on Broadway Street in San Francisco, owned by Fadil Shahin.  She was also a periodic dancer and once an honored guest during a birthday party given in her honor at the Bagdad, also located then on Broadway Street, owned by Yussef and Elias.

Jodette has also danced for many dignitaries including former presidents Ronald Reagan, Billy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Anwar Sadat. She also danced for the Gamal Abd El Nasser Group for the Freedom Day as well as numerous times for King Hussain and King Faisil. She has danced all over the world in the most famous of nightclubs, including The Fez and the Egyptian Gardens in Hollywood. For 18 years, Jodette sold costumes without competition.

I feel extremely fortunate to have studied first with Jodette. Because of her affiliation both professional and friendly with the dancers of the Golden Age of Egypt, she introduced me not only to the most perfect dance in the whole world, but to the world of Taheyia Karioka, Samia Gamal, Katie, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Fareed Al Atrash, Om Kalsoum, and Abd El Halim Hafez as well as numerous well-known Egyptian actors with whom she spent many hours talking and enjoying their company while living in Cairo. Because of the authenticity of her dance, I have gone on to discover and describe the Egyptian Dance Code -- the specific element that makes her dance look authentic when compared to that of the West. 

During Jodette's reign as a Belly dance teacher, she encountered several legal oppositions from some of the rival Belly dance teachers.  However, in the end, she always won her cases.  One such opposition was an accusation that she had taken the name "Bal Anat" from a rival teacher and used it for her own troupe.  "I never took that name.  I don't even know what it means."  Jodette says, "I named my troupe Binti Balady which means Daughter of my Country."  Binti Balady, the name she chose, was taken from a song written by her very good friend Fareed Al Atrash.  The song was featured in a movie sung by Fareed himself and another good friend, Taheyia Karioka, danced to it.  Another opposition she encountered included a finger cymbal poster. 

With the proof of Jodette's poster being the most authentic and not just a copy of one that was already in print, as evidenced by a similar poster she had brought back with her from the Middle East, Jodette, won her case in court, and, again, placed her mark on the Belly dance walk of fame as being the real thing and the most authentic. How could anyone dispute that? 

After all, Jodette was and is a prodigy of her country in which the dance originated and she learned it from the women of that country.  How authentic and real can one become?

Jodette is fiercely entrenched in loyalty and principal, two aspects of her native culture out of which she operates, and she expects nothing less from her students.  Because of this ethos, she has engaged with and maintains strong connections to the owners of the local Middle Eastern restaurants that promote Belly dance entertainment to their dining guests, sending only her most loyal and best dancers to dance in them. 

Her negotiations are strictly between her and the people involved, and all perform and act according to her stipulations contractually and in an agreeable manner.  The dancers have the opportunity to dance in restaurants and nightclubs, and the owners feature her best.

For the dancers outside Jodette’s studio, this mode of operation may not seem favorable, and at times, Jodette has become the brunt of slander and denigration because of this. However, for a Middle Eastern immigrant with little to no knowledge of the goings-on of the Western culture, Jodette has proven to be a formidable adversary with whom to deal with.  Just as she expects loyalty from her students, she maintains it with the people with whom she does business with simply because they understand each other, having come from the same culture and from the same part of the globe.  Character assassinations by dancers not affiliated with Jodette's studio only strengthens Jodette's resolve to keep control over what she has worked for these many years.  There is much more than just the dance one can learn from Jodette!

An order form and ad that appeared in Cosomopolitan magazine for her records

Survived by three sons, three grand daughters, one grand son, and four great grand daughters, Jodette enjoys the fruits of her teaching labors watching her own grand daughters dance.  One of them is one of the 26 professional dancers that contracts out to perform in several of the fourteen restaurants under Jodette's umbrella.

Says Jodette after almost 45 years in the business of teaching Belly dancing, “Many hundreds went out of business because they brought jazz into the dance. I’m still in business because I am the only authentic dancer and dance teacher around.” Who can deny that? She is from over there, and the people from over there taught her. She is the real thing. When I asked her what she would say to the up-and-coming generation of dancers, she had this to say:

“Be humble. Be yourself. Don’t get jealous of other people. Clean your mind before you dance. Smile, smile, smile! Stay clean and clear, and if you have a piece of extra bread, divide it between you and a hungry person. Don’t wish for money, wish for health!”

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